Taylor is chiefly known for his masterful work, The Rules and Exercise of Holy Living (1650) which has never gone out of print.
Taylor should be known for much more, including his Liberty of Prophesying (1647) a book calling for an end to government-backed coercion in support of religion, an idea that would not take root for another century in the Enlightenment.
In his day, Taylor was known as a great preacher and a masterful crafter of prose, including this gem from a sermon given in 1653:
"Prayer is the peace of our spirit, the stillness of our thoughts, the evenness of recollection, the seat of meditation, the rest of our cares and the calm of our tempest; prayer is the issue of a quiet mind, of untroubled thoughts, it is the daughter of charity, and the sister of meekness."
Taylor profoundly influenced his own generation and those who came after him, including Thomas Jefferson who said every educated person should have Taylor on the bookshelf. Many of Taylor's quotes can be found in 19th century "books of days," the forerunner to the contemporary "Forward Day by Day." Taylor's story is worth telling.
Taylor was born and educated in Cambridge, the fourth of six children; eventually coming to the attention of Archbishop William Laud who heard him preach at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Taylor became the protégé of Laud, who secured for him a teaching post at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1635. Taylor was also appointed chaplain to King Charles I. Taylor was on the ecclesiastical fast-track, and seemed destined to become a bishop, perhaps even Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1640, Charles I overplayed his hand with the Puritans in Parliament, and civil war erupted between the armies of Parliament and the Royalists. England was ravaged. In 1642, the king was captured along with his chaplain, Taylor. Charles I was beheaded and as he went to the gallows, he gave his ring to Taylor, who was allowed to go into exile in Wales in 1645.
In Wales, Taylor wrote prolifically, taking an attitude that both sides were profoundly wrong and sinful. He took Anglican theological theory and applied it to real life as he experienced it. In his classic, Holy Living, Taylor explained a way of living a “holy life” in ordinary walks of life. He lived at a time when prayer books were banned, churches burned, and people felt adrift and worse. How could they worship God – be present with God – if not in a church? Taylor explained how, and it made him one of the most popular and oft-printed religious authors well into the early 20th century.
For Taylor, God was everywhere. Contemporary authors have re-discovered that theme, but few have crafted language as soaring as Taylor's:
“So that we imagine God to be as the air and the sea; and we all enclosed in his circle, wrapped up in the lap of his infinite nature, or as infants in the wombs of their pregnant mothers: and we can no more be removed from the presence of God than from our being.”
When Taylor's wife died, he wrote a companion volume to Holy Living, called Holy Dying. It was truly an ode to his wife, and his own way of struggling through his grief.
Eventually, the monarchy was restored. Taylor was made a bishop, but in Northern Ireland (perhaps because the Royalists did not fully trust him). He began writing yet another long set of works, including a treatise on how bishops have a place in the church only as long as they are promoting ministry. Perhaps we would do well in our day to take a few pages from Taylor. He outlived most of his children, and died in 1667.
I have a postscript that is my story:
Ten years ago, Lori and I took a summer course in Anglican theology at Oxford. I wandered into Blackwell, the great bookstore in Oxford, and found a set of Taylor's works printed in the mid-19th century; the books were in pristine condition and the price was beyond my reach.
That evening I described these books at the pub to our summer classmate friends. The next thing I knew, Dick Toll, the rector of a church in Oregon, took out his checkbook and wrote a check to Blackwell for the price of the books.
The next morning I waited at the door of the store, impatient to be first inside lest someone else buy the books (never mind the books probably had languished on the shelves for decades). I bought the books and then scurried off to Morning Prayer.
I took my pew, opened the service leaflet, and that's when I noticed: It was August 13, Jeremy Taylor's Feast Day.